TEMPE – The Arizona Coyotes haven’t had a history filled with success. The team is on the tail end of a rebuild and has only made the playoffs once since its run to the Western Conference Final in 2012.
However, this season might be the turning point for the organization. After an offseason full of new additions, the young Coyotes team could be in the mix to clinch a wild-card spot in the West. They open the season Friday on the road against the New Jersey Devils.
After Bill Armstrong was named general manager in 2020, the Coyotes automatically went into a full rebuild, trading fan favorites like Darcy Kuemper, Christian Dvorak, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and eventually Jakob Chychrun. This was not the first time the team had entered a rebuild – in fact, fans were used to it. The Coyotes have only made the playoffs nine times in their history, and it seemed like every time the team went through a rebuild, it was just for short glimpses of success or a total failure.
When Armstrong took over with the team’s new ownership, it felt different, however. The team built from the ground up and took its time to grow and succeed. Now armed with some of those players drafted over the past couple of years, there’s more intrigue entering the 2023-24 season.
Looking at the forward group first, the Coyotes have made key changes. Perhaps the biggest forward addition in free agency for the team was Jason Zucker. The California native played with the Penguins for the past four seasons and is coming off his second-best season with 48 points. He is exactly the player who fits the mold for the Coyotes because he produces and values being a team player. He’s the first guy who stands up for his team and the person who will inject the team with energy no matter the circumstances.
After playing with future Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the past four seasons, Zucker is now alongside players who are just starting their careers but might be future stars in the making like Logan Cooley and Dylan Guenther, which is a whole new challenge compared to Zucker’s time in Pittsburgh.
“This team is very young. It’s gonna be a different challenge in that regard,” Zucker said. “That’s where you know guys like (Matt) Dumba, myself, (Alex) Kerfoot, even (Clayton) Keller and (Nick) Schmaltz that have been around for a while are going to kind of help bring that aspect. The talent is probably the biggest comparison. Obviously, I’m not saying that we have Sidney Crosby on our team, but we’ve got a lot of really talented players.”
The aforementioned Kerfoot could be an underrated addition to the Coyotes as he’s not far removed from a 51-point season. Also added via free agency to the forward group are Zach Sanford whom head coach Andre Tourigny has been impressed with during camp, and the return of Nick Bjugstad who was traded last trade deadline.
The biggest addition to the forward group came through internally though as Cooley signed his entry-level contract. The third overall draft pick from 2022 has been hyped as the best prospect in the Coyotes’ organization since perhaps Keller in 2016. After debating on returning to the University of Minnesota or signing with the Coyotes, he chose the Coyotes and has already made an impact by scoring a highlight reel-worthy goal in Australia.
With all the hype around him, the young forward is excited to play his first-ever NHL game in front of the people who helped him get to this point.
“I’m looking forward to playing my first NHL game,” Cooley said. “It’s gonna be fun having all my family there and it’s gonna be pretty special.”
Perhaps a player everyone is looking forward to is the aforementioned Keller. The forward had a career-high 86 points last season, 37 of those being goals. He was on a line last season with Barrett Hayton and Nick Schmaltz that ended up having some extremely good chemistry. Schmaltz had 58 points and Hayton had a breakout season with 43 points.
Despite that success, Keller looks to improve on his incredible 2022-23 season and push the Coyotes toward a playoff spot although he’s taking it one day at a time.
“I think we have a much better roster this year,” Keller said. “We have a lot of veteran players, a lot of guys that have been in the league a long time. I think just taking it one game at a time, not looking too far.”
Matias Maccelli also will be with the team for a full season after a stellar rookie season. The 49-point scorer might explode in a big way for the Coyotes, especially with the new additions potentially on his line.
One last notable forward is Michael Carcone. After leading the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Tucson Roadrunners in scoring last season with 85 points, Carcone earned himself a one-way contract with the Coyotes and could be a player who makes a massive impact after developing in the AHL.
On the blueline, the Coyotes added quite a bit of players. Sean Durzi might be the biggest addition. He had a career-high with the LA Kings in points last season with 38 points. However, due to their limited cap space, the Kings were forced to trade him. The defenseman will likely be in the top four to begin the Coyotes’ season.
Matt Dumba was also added in the offseason as a free agent. Although his recent past seasons haven’t been anything comparable to his 50-point campaign in 2017-18, this is the first time he’ll be suiting up for an NHL team other than the Minnesota Wild. It’s a change that could pay off in spades for him and the Coyotes.
Also added in free agency was Travis Dermott who will most likely appear on the bottom pairing on some nights, and the return of Troy Stetcher who was traded to the Calgary Flames during last season’s trade deadline.
Juuso Valimaki enters his second season with the Coyotes after the best season in his career. Prepare for him to potentially have a really good season, especially with the blueline getting better and better. He had 34 points last season and was a great part of a sometimes lackluster defense.
Speaking of some good defensemen, J.J. Moser is perhaps one of the most underrated defensemen on this team and out west. He had 31 points last season but it isn’t solely that factor of his game that makes him an underrated player. He’s one of those players who makes smart and reliable defensive decisions that will help save a goal from going in. He was a -12 last season but that was pretty good on a team that finished near the bottom of its division.
Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram will be the goaltending tandem once again heading into this season. Like others, the two netminders aren’t talked about a lot since the Coyotes haven’t really been world-beaters on the ice since they’ve arrived but they are a very good tandem. Vejmelka actually had a .900 save percentage on a below .500 team with a defense in front of him that barely had any NHL-caliber defensemen after the trade deadline. Meanwhile, Ingram also had a good save percentage (.907) even with a 6-13-8 record.
Both goalies have gotten better with every game they’ve played under Tourigny and now with Ivan Prosvetov gone due to the Colorado Avalanche claiming him on waivers, the duo will be the undisputed goalies heading into this new season.
One last thing to mention is the Coyotes’ AHL team: the Tucson Roadrunners. The team will feature many exciting prospects like Josh Doan and Dylan Guenther who will look to grow their game before they most likely get NHL stints later in the season. The Roadrunners – like the Coyotes – will show fans a preview of some of the young talent acquired during the rebuild that will help the NHL team win in the future.
With all the new additions they’ve made along with more experience on the belts of many of the players, the Coyotes look like a much better team compared to the opening night lineup from last season. However, there is one outside factor that might affect them more than anything on the ice and that is the Coyotes’ arena issues.
The Coyotes’ proposal for a new arena in downtown Tempe was shot down over the offseason and it’s expected for many to doubt and critique the Coyotes for the issue during their upcoming campaign. However, Keller is making sure it won’t affect the team’s locker room, their play on the ice and their attempt to push for the playoffs.
“Obviously, we want to push for the playoffs this year and there’s going to be doubters and people saying whatever they want to say about our rink and situation,” Keller said. “I think our group has done a good job the last couple of years, just keeping our heads in the room. I think we’re all excited for that challenge with not many people believing in us.”
The Coyotes definitely have a good shot for the playoffs most likely with one of the final wild-card spots, especially with teams in their division like the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets losing big pieces during last season’s trade deadline and over the offseason. At the very least, the Coyotes look like they can improve from last season’s 28-40-14 record.
It will be an interesting season for the NHL team as they start to come out of their rebuild. More than likely, however, Coyotes fans hope this season will be a preview of a young and thrilling team that could constantly make the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup every season.